Thursday, 1 April 2010

Google and China

Google has recently been involved in a rather public spat with the Chinese authorities. The Chinese government wanted to continue the arrangements whereby could operate in mainland China provided they blocked certain sites.

Google said (very understandably from their viewpoint) that censorship violated their principles and they would not co-operate. It is of course arguable that it is their football and they have a perfect right to choose whom they play with. I would myself risk jail and poverty to defend freedom of speech in my own country, but I do think that Google may have got it wrong in China for two reasons.

Firstly, I think Westerners should cut the Chinese authorities a great deal more slack. As I was starting secondary school, China was a closed society just emerging from the Great Leap Forward in which tens of millions had died. The authorities planned everything and brooked neither political dissent nor expression of religious belief. China's present leaders lived through that. You cannot move a thousand million people from Maoism to a liberal democracy overnight. The (still nominally communist) government has been opening its hands as fast as it dare for several decades; only last week, a friend sent me a link to an article in China Daily "House churches [read "not officially registered"] thrive in Beijing". That is a massive step forward. Massive.

Secondly, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the particular issue, this stinks of cultural imperialism. Even in the West, freedom of speech and expression is not absolute. We in the UK (quite rightly in my view) do not allow paedophile rings or terrorists unfettered right to express their views. We don't permit defamation, false claims of medical efficacy, or the publishing of material that breaches copyright. The key thing here though is that these limits are decided (however imperfectly) by society through it's government and not by some foreign firm. Imagine how we would feel if Google were Chinese owned and insisted on running its UK operation how it wanted. If I were a Chinese leader I would be thinking less about Tiananmen Square and more about precedent: for example, the freedom of action they they would have if (to take a hypothetical example) violent groups popped up in Tibet or amongst the Uyghur people and started using the Internet aggressively for recruiting.

The line between good and evil runs through every human heart, everyone makes mistakes, and we are all prisoners of our own background: Chinese leaders, Google executives – and even those who read and right blogs. Given empathy and the occasional touch of forgiveness the Chinese leadership will get there in the end. In the meantime I'd like to see Google showing a touch more respect for the largest sovereign nation on earth, even when they don't agree with them.

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